It seems safe to say that the 20th was indeed the Century of the Tough Guy. A weasely little tough guy necessitated our century's fiercest war. Tough guys muscled their way into positions of power and wealth the world over -- the meek didn't have a chance; all they inherited were a few black eyes and rampant oppression. The most celebrated athlete was a man whose job was to pummel in the skulls of other men. Hollywood spent the most money on movies in which tough guys blasted other tough guys to smithereens; Americans even chose a man who played tough guys in the movies to be president, presumably because they admired his get-tough policy with Angie Dickinson in "The Killers."
But throughout the century -- even after his death, not even two-thirds of the way through it -- the consummate tough guy was Humphrey Bogart. Bogart didn't start in movies until he was 31, which today is about the age at which the E! Channel starts working on the "Where Are They Now?" specials for washed-up tyro talents weaned on slasher flicks and John Hughes vehicles; he wasn't a star until 40, the age today that Tarantino wannabes start writing a performer's "comeback" role.Sure, Bogey killed guys, but they were usually guys who needed killing to teach them a good lesson. Bogart carried with his toughness a world-weariness, a palpable but unspoken hurt that somehow justified the steely exterior, an existential ennui enlivened only by danger, qualities sorely missing from the Ahnolds and Jackies and Jean-Claudes of today. (How can you even think to pose as a tough guy with a name like Jean-Claude, anyway?)
And given that his birthday was Christmas Day 1899, Bogart's century indeed comes to an appropriate close this week.
A century could have a worse mascot.
A parenthetical aside: Actually, there seems to be some confusion over Bogart's birth date. One story -- promulgated as mere myth in one biography and as truth in another book -- suggests he was born in January but that Warner Bros. publicity changed it, reasoning that even such a convincing heel couldn't be all bad if he shared a Christmas birthday.
Since his death, Bogart has been the subject of more than 20 books, seven novels, a couple of plays, two movies and eight documentaries. He has been named by a couple of industry lists as the top movie performer of the century, and "Casablanca" ranks near the top of all best-film lists.
Herewith, how Humphrey bogarted the 20th century, in myths, movies and, when we absolutely have to resort to them, facts.
Bless the beasts and the children: Bogart was long rumored -- incorrectly, of course -- to have been the model for the illustrations on the Gerber's Baby Food jars. His later behavior proved how ironic that would have been.
The art of the scandal: Bogart appeared with Fatty Arbuckle (ground zero in Hollywood's first splashy scandal involving a dead starlet) in the latter's failed comeback, a play called "Baby Mine," in 1927.
Clearly, he must have picked up a few pointers from the master -- Bogey earns a reputation for being brusque if not frequently drunk, stumbling through four marriages, or roughly one every decade of his adult life. His third is particularly boisterous -- he and Mayo Methot spend the night of their 1938 wedding separated after a drunken brawl and soon become known as "the battling Bogarts" (she stabs him in 1942).
And if Bogey doesn't invent the concept of the trophy wife, he certainly perfects it: Lauren Bacall, wife No. 4, is 25 years younger than he. Scandal runs in the family: One sister dies at age 35 of alcoholism; the other was a manic-depressive.
Enmity, thy name is Bogart: Eschewing the niceties that informed society up to that point, Bogart helped usher in the era of the public feud. Among those who loathed him: Billy Wilder, Bette Davis, William Holden and George Raft (not to mention his ex-wives).
Educational and work-ethic anti-hero: Those who complain about "kids today" should take a look at "kids back then": Bogart was put on probation and eventually expelled from prep school. The lack of effort paid off so well he exploited it throughout his life: He was (temporarily) declared a deserter by the Navy; Warner Bros. routinely suspended him for sundry acts of insubordination.
Birth of the cool: Before Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, et al. turned it into a traveling circus given over to drinking, womanizing and yukking it up in half-baked stage shows and movies, Bogart created the Rat Pack as an itinerant group of drinking buddies. "Rats are very well-behaved," Bogart explained at the time, then seemingly contradicted himself: "Rats are for staying up late and drinking lots of booze."
Bogey the self-empowerment guru: Feminist film writer Joan Mellen wrote of Bogart, "He taught the young that self-confidence was a moral, rather than a material, quality and need have no connection with physical perfection."
Bogey as fashion plate: The actor's trademark trench coat has become synonymous with both menace and crime-busting. Private eyes continued to wear them in movies and TV for years -- even if, in Columbo's case, it was dismayingly rumpled -- and the long black duster was the outerwear of choice for Eurotrash villains in most action flicks in the '80s; Keanu Reeves donned one most recently in "The Matrix."
Thank Bogey for Hollywood's financial disparity: In 1946, Bogart was the highest-paid actor in the world. He earned $467,000, not quite the $20 million payday stars reap today, but then, there weren't as many Faberge eggs or Ferraris to acquire back then. He was also the first major star to start his own production company, Santana, named after his boat. Small wonder Bogart disparaged communism during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.
High art by way of Hollywood: Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" ushered in the French New Wave of film; the main character was based on Bogart's persona.
War hero: Bogart was called for active service in the Navy in World War I, assigned to the USS Leviathan two days before the Armistice. He appeared in three of the most famous World War II films of all time -- "Casablanca," of course, "The Caine Mutiny" and "To Have and Have Not"; the first two earned him Oscar nominations. He declines, however, to enlist for the combat film "God Is My Co-Pilot," perhaps inspiring a future generation of draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.
Bogey's history lessons: Bogart's Oscar-winning performance was for "The African Queen," set in Africa during World War I. Prohibition and the Crash of '29 are depicted in Bogart's 1939 film "The Roaring Twenties." He frequently played gangsters in his early films; of his breakthrough film, 1936's "The Petrified Forest," The New York Times observed, "Humphrey Bogart can be a psychopathic gangster more like Dillinger than the outlaw himself."
The problem we all live with: Bogart took on racism in 1937's "Black Legion," playing an embittered factory worker who joins a pseudo-patriotic Klan-like group, only to discover their sinister motives.
The thin black and blue line: "Bullets or Ballots" was about a cop apparently embracing the wrong side of the law. "The Great O'Malley" is about an overzealous cop driving an innocent man to a life of crime. "Crime School" hinged on a sadistic reform school officer. The renegade attitude of certain police forces was no doubt inspired by the famous line from the Bogart film "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre": "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"
Brought to you by: When, after years of artistic resistance to the concept of "selling out to the establishment," it became acceptable to crassly hawk products on TV, who was there ordering up a Coca-Cola in a TV commercial 30 years after his death? You got it -- sellout by proxy Bogey.
A pair of Bogart films anticipate climactic changes that were to come in the media. In "Two Against the World," Bogey played an unscrupulous radio station manager -- a very early incarnation of Matt Drudge or Sally Jessy Raphael -- who broadcasts sensational and exploitative reports; one so badgers a couple that they commit suicide. "Deadline, U.S.A.," starring Bogart as an editor chasing down a scoop on the last day before his newspaper folds, seems to foretell the death of print journalism, if not quite the advent of the Internet, a full half-century before it came into vogue.
Talk about your visionaries.